Posts Tagged ‘stinging nettle’

Suburban foraging in social context – original contribution to ‘Playing For Time’

May 3, 2015

Here’s a photo I took two years ago:


Have a close look for a moment, click on it to get a bigger version if you like. Do you see something strange?

No? How about in this one, zooming a little closer in on what originally caught my eye:


Give up? Well, here it is center-stage in all its majesty:


A three-leaved nettle! Usually the leaves go up in alternate pairs on opposite sides of the square stalk, and looking at them from above gives the impression of four-sidedness, as you can see from the other specimens pictured above. However, this one particular nettle (and another sibling I later found not too far away) had leaves going up in groups of three, but also alternating so that leaves from the higher stage fit ‘in between’ those beneath, thus maximising the sunlight exposure for the whole plant.

Pretty cool, no? And I never would have noticed if I hadn’t been foraging from the patch to use the nettles in teas and cooked up in various stews and dishes. It really illustrates what Becky Lerner has called the ‘super power’ of the forager’s eye, when you begin to look really closely at your surroundings and start noticing all manner of things that remain invisible to most people. Little clues that lead to long stories – histories really – of what has happened in that particular place and how it connects to hundreds, maybe thousands of factors which make it totally unique and inform its interconnected relationship to all adjoining spaces, as well as the beings that pass through them (including you!) This particular history could almost have been evolutionary. Was I witnessing the chance mutation that could lead to a whole new subspecies of nettle, or even fundamentally alter the basic structure of the existing species, if it proved more adaptable in the long term? Call me a plant geek, but I think that’s pretty amazing.

So, with that preamble out the way, here’s something I wrote the following year for inclusion in a book that’s just been published called Playing For Time. I wanted to put the original piece up here because there’s a lot that got trimmed off for the final edit (although more went in than I expected, after the editor Charlotte Du Cann told me she and author Lucy Neal just wanted to use my burdock photo and some text as an ‘extended caption’ – so I’m not complaining!) and the overall tone came across as breathless and ‘inspirational’ rather than my usual measured, realism-infused style. Reading back over it, I see there were quite a few important points there which I want to start making more often about the social context in which activities like foraging and herbalism take place, and how these might eventually coalesce into a political movement of some kind to challenge the absurd and highly damaging ways of accessing food and medicine which have been forced upon us by the status quo and the state-corporate and proprietary powers that benefit from its ruinous continuation. Anyway, here it is (with permission):


It’s been around eight years now since I started to take an active interest in wild plants and foraging. Nearly two years out of uni, living back in the old home with my parents, having quit my job in retail just after Christmas, I needed something to get me outside – out of the house and out of my overactive head. Foraging was an obvious choice because a) it wouldn’t cost any money, b) it fit with my greeny/lefty politics of sustainability and DIY self-sufficiency (which I had spent about as much time and effort developing over the course of three years as I had done studying for my degree), c) after too much time in cities it sent me back into comparatively wild places – an appreciation of which my parents had successfully nurtured during my childhood, and d) – something they definitely never encouraged – it allowed me to at least pretend that I could say ‘fuck you’ to the working world, be economically invisible, have no need to rely on capitalist modes of production, basically do a Tolstoy and choose simple menial work instead of having my intellect harnessed to the project of destroying the world. I never pushed towards these goals with 100 per cent dedication but early successes, especially with potential staples like Burdock root, acorns and hazelnuts, gave me a feeling of security with the knowledge that I could go a long way in that direction if I, personally, chose to.

Other experiences with the medicinal side of things gave me a further sense of power and control over my own life: if something went wrong I didn’t necessarily have to go straight to a medical professional to be supplied with synthetic drugs or put through complex, machine-based treatments. Instead, I could look up my symptoms, read or ask trusted people which herbs were considered suitable in treating them (or in holistic terms, suitable for supporting the body’s own attempt to heal itself), go out to harvest them and see if I could successfully treat myself. My surefire remedies so far include Bramble root tincture for diarrhea, Elderflower and Yarrow tea for colds and ‘flu, and St. John’s Wort oil for all kinds of muscular aches and pains. Again, I’m not saying that I would never go to my GP, even for something very serious, just that it was a nice feeling knowing that I had a different option available to me, and that it would grow in strength and capability if I continued to use it and learn from the experiences over time.

So far so good on the personal level, but lately I’ve had the persistent feeling that more is needed to release the true potential or promise of foraging as a social, even cultural activity. So far the mainstream awakening towards wild foods and medicines rather fits Dmitry Orlov’s assertion that ‘resilience and sustainability are often little more than middle-class hobbies’ – people with the privilege of time and independent means (eg: a family who are willing to support you and provide a roof over your head while you ‘find yourself’) to dabble with these things and maybe come up with a few successful dishes using wild ingredients which will get made more than once. This is a world away from what foraging meant, and continues to mean, to the world’s indigenous people and even our own recent peasant-farmer ancestors (wild herbs such as Nettle, Sorrel and Alexanders often went into the daily stew or ‘potage’ sustaining medieval agricultural labourers). They have a history of close association with these plants and a knowledge of how to use them passed down through the generations. Even their spiritual traditions pay homage to them, with songs being sung to encourage fruitfulness and to give thanks to the spirits for their generosity. An example of this surviving in Britain is the ‘wassail‘ tradition in which apple trees are implored to bear a good harvest:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Organised wild food walks share knowledge and create bonds between people in such a way as to foster the growth of this kind of culture, but somehow paying for access to this knowledge has always felt wrong to me (which is why I’ve only led a few myself on a free/donation basis), and there’s the danger of playing to the crowd willing to pay the most, ie: wealthy hobbyists from the city looking for a stimulating day out. A less leader-oriented ‘skillshare’ type event would seem more promising for nurturing the revolutionaries we so desperately need to reshape our whole attitude and relationship to the other-than-human world. This would not exclude the people who could benefit most from supplementing their diets with nutritious wild edibles and health-giving medicinal plants, all available for the simple energy costs of gathering and processing and often not so very far from their own front doors.

These days foraging is less something I actively set out to do so much as something that happens almost incidentally as I go about my day-to-day business. It helps that I work outdoors as a gardener, where I often experience the pleasure of being paid to harvest my own food (aka ‘weeding’ or ‘raking up debris’). But I have a little section of bridleway which go through twice a day on my commute. Usually I manage to allow five minutes or so to get off my bike and bag up a few things or even graze on them directly – Cleavers, Nettles (you can eat them raw with the right technique!), Cuckooflower, young Bramble shoots, Hawthorn and Rose leaves early in the season; haws, rosehips, blackberries, elderberries, acorns in the Autumn months… It’s amazing how much you can get from so little time, and it makes for a nice settling ritual to start and finish the day. I see all the seasonal changes, watch all kinds of wildlife, and observe the plants through their yearly cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Last Spring I noticed a nettle with leaves going up the stalk in groups of three rather than the standard alternating pair. It totally made my day, and I made sure to seek it out regularly and check on its mutant progress for the rest of the year, speaking reassuring words to hopefully aid its brave experiment.


I do recommend the book, which I’ve been working through in brief sittings after receiving my copy at the launch up in London (thanks Lucy, a really pleasant evening). There’s loads of beautiful things in there, both described and photographed with essays from activists and writers, explanations from artists and reports from community organisers, mostly under the Transition Town umbrella. Charlotte Du Cann wrote a nice piece about it here, and her blog is well worth checking out too, if you click around from that link.

And the nettle? Well, it didn’t make an appearance last year, but just look who I found poking her head out the other day in near exactly the same spot:


You little beauty!

Springtime Stingers

April 11, 2015

Sorry, been getting away from immediate realities here lately (haha, says he typing letters into a lit up plastic box). To get us back on solid ground I’ll tell you that I’ve been watching the nettles come back up along my favourite bridleway as I walk past with my bike on the morning commute, and again later in the day going in the opposite direction. A few weeks back I remembered to bring my camera – here are some pics of the little blighters, now much bigger, emerging from under last year’s brittle, dead stems:



My favourite verse from the Tao Te Ching:

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

(verse 76, trans. Stephen Mitchell)

How long have you been living in last year’s hollow, dried out stems? Isn’t it time you took your energy out of them and put it into the new growth instead? I’ve made two harvests already so far, taking a glove from my bag for the left hand and a penknife for the right, then holding a nettle top and snicking it off before dropping it into a plastic bag. Mostly I’ve been drinking them in morning infusions – four or five tops get taken out of the fridge, put in the teapot and covered with about 0.5l of just-boiled water, then being left to steep for 5mins or so before drinking. Here’s a bigger pot I made for H and me:


You have not drunk nettle tea until you have drunk fresh nettle tea. It’s a completely different beast from the dried form, which I find always has something of the damp sock about it. You get delicious aromas coming off it, a much brighter colour and an incredibly lively *zing* as it touches the tongue and goes down the back of the throat. I probably needn’t say anything about the astonishing array of beneficial macro- and micro-nutrients which I’m guessing are likewise more potent in the fresh herb. When you’ve drained the pot reach in with your fingers and eat the gloopy mass of nettle that remains. They’re damn tasty and won’t sting you after being submerged in hot water for any length of time.

I also made a harvest of nettle roots from a big weeding job last month which I scrubbed and chopped up to make a tincture with 40% vodka (the strongest I could find in the supermarket):



The original idea was to use it to help lessen some swelling I’ve been getting ‘down there’, most likely from all the cycling I’ve been doing to and from work (around 50 miles per week), as I’d heard that nettle root has proven virtues in the treatment of benign prostate hyperplasia and other prostate issues*. However, after further research and consultation with my GP it now seems more likely that the issue is with the perineum on the exterior, the swelling due to constant contact and pummeling by the bike saddle (ouch!). Changing to a harder saddle with a deep groove down the middle seems to have just about solved the problem by shifting the pressure away from the central areas and out to the sitting bones, although I still get the occasional uncomfortable day. I don’t know if using this tincture as a general ‘tonic’ for that area will help get things back to normal or not, but it can’t hurt to try… At least I’ve not heard of any negative side effects and there appear to be other benefits as well. Otherwise, I know some older gents who suffer from BPH, so I’ll be offering them some when it’s ready in another month or so.

Anyway, I heartily recommend you get acquainted with nettle, the more intimately the better – and what could be more intimate than daily use as food and/or medicine? Here’s another Frank Cook video I’ve linked to before in which he suggests that English people should consider adopting nettle as a ‘national food’:

[0:27] [T]he rest of the world of people who know nettles consider it an amazing healing herb, and it’s only here and other places in Europe that it’s considered a noxious weed. And it’s really important: any noxious weed you have around you is rare somewhere, and that’s really important to remember – and that, instead of thinking of it as a noxious weed, think of it as an incredibly abundant friend who’s trying to remind you of something.


* – here’s a summary of scientific evaluations

Early Spring Salad & Nettle Soup

March 4, 2011

As an example of the kind of thing I’ll be showing (hopefully) lots of people tomorrow, here’s a salad I made yesterday using ingredients foraged on a walk that lasted slightly longer than an hour:

From left to right; top to bottom:

Ground Elder, White Dead-Nettle, Yarrow, Primrose leaves/flowers
Cleavers (aka Goosegrass), Dandelion, Gorse flowers, Sorrel
Chickweed, Hairy Bittercress, Bramble (Blackberry) Shoots, Ribwort Plantain

All are edible raw, but as an experiment I tried steaming them all together for just over a minute, thinking this might make more nutrients available by breaking down cell walls etc.

Then serving straight away with a little olive oil drizzled over the top:

Not all of the plants responded well to this. Gorse and Hairy Bittercress all-but lost their flavour (especially a shame with the latter), the bigger leaves went just a little too soggy for my liking (Sorrel did its usual blanching thing, retaining its nice sour flavour though). On the other hand I think the bramble shoots could’ve done with a little longer. Yarrow, Cleavers, Chickweed and (most of all), Ribwort Plantain benefited most from the process, at least as far as my taste buds were concerned. The whole dish gave me stacks of energy though, which was felt mostly by some poor guy innocently wheeling his bins out when I body-checked him at practically full pelt, running home down the hill(!) … ::gulp:: Sorry mate!

Another potential benefit of steaming would mean I could include Stinging Nettle in the above mix (heat disables the stings). As it happens I ran out of them making the promised soup:

Ingredients: 1 onion, 1 potato, some nettles, fried in butter & oil (nettles added only for the last couple of minutes):

(I added some garlic and half a chopped carrot for good measure.) Then pour approx 1.5l boiling water over the lot and crumble in a stock cube:

Simmer for 20mins-1/2 an hour, then finally blend with one of those wand thingies and you’re done:

I forgot to add salt and pepper. Crème Fraîche is a nice addition at the end, too. Also my soup was a bit watery, which could be solved (I’m guessing) either by adding less water or by putting in more nettles or other veg.

Do this: it’s good for you!

Dock seed and other badass weeds

September 7, 2010

Okay, let’s talk really disturbed ground. There’s a patch of ground just the other side of the local park which until recently played host to a small group of rescued horses. Here they are looking cold during the snows last winter:

They were pretty despondent and unresponsive generally, and despite the entertainment of a sign instructing passersby not to feed them as they were on ‘a stricked diet’ I think their effect on the land was pretty negative over all (not that I blame them for it). Over the course of about half a year they stripped the ground of all greenery and trampled it to bare dirt.

Yet, a couple of months after they were moved on, have a look:

At this stage you can see:

  • Ragwort (the clump of yellow flowers in the top center-right) – apparently toxic to livestock but good for cinnabar moths (who borrow its toxic properties to render themselves inedible too) and other insects. The fact that farmers don’t like it may be reflected in its alternative names: ‘Stinking Nanny/Ninny/Willy, Staggerwort, Dog Standard, Cankerwort, Stammerwort and Mare’s Fart’ (Wikipedia). I think it looks pretty, and noticed it growing everywhere over the summer months – it seemed especially fond of roadsides… No known uses that I’m immediately interested in following up.
  • Fat Hen (the flower/seed-whitened stalks waving in the center-right foreground) – I’m fairly confident in this identification, but I’ve been wrong before with this plant. Also known as White Goosefoot, relative of Quinoa and used extensively as a food plant in the past (and currently in Asia and Africa). Expect to see a post about making flour from the seeds later on when they’ve fully ripened. I’ve read that in central Europe ‘up to 50 per cent of all weed seeds present in the soil are those of fat hen’ (The Illustrated Guide to Edible Plants – Dagmar Lánská). Wikipedia provide the intriguing information that ‘[i]t is one of the more robust and competitive weeds, capable of producing crop losses of up to 13% in corn, 25% in soybeans, and 48% in sugar beets at an average plant distribution’ and furthermore that ‘[i]t is difficult to control with chemical means’. Did I tell you about seed bombs already?

Earlier and elsewhere nearby there was stacks of Yarrow, some Clover and the ubiquitous Plantains and Nettles low over the ground, most of which still remain alongside thistles, pretty white-flowering Bindweed, some tall grasses whose names I don’t know, Hogweed (whose tall, seed-laden corpses you can see on the ‘horizon’ above) and:

  • Mugwort, one of my favourite plants to rub between fingers and smell, whose flowers and leaves I’ve dried and stripped from the stalk to make a powerfully aromatic tea which is supposed to give you lucid dreams (although mine haven’t seemed particularly out-of-the-ordinary even after drinking a strong 1,5l pot of the stuff just before bedtime). PFAF warn that it ‘should never be used by pregnant women, especially in their first trimester, since it can cause a miscarriage’. First Ways had a nice post on the mischevious personality of the plant recently – clearly one I’ll have to keep a close eye on… 10 out of 10 for crazy medicinal applications:- apparently the Chinese use(d) it to successfully correct breech births!

But the real champion in the photo: the incredible forest of red-brown Dock*, gone so conspicuously to seed. Thanks to Emily Porter who tipped me off to the potential of the seed as flour without having to bother with separating the chaff (a nearly impossible feat so far as I could make out):

I once ground them up, including most of the chaff, and mixed them with regular flour to make biscuits. They had a great taste, reminiscent of buckwheat, which makes [sense] being that they are in the buckwheat family. And you know what? I don’t think it really hurts if you eat the chaff. It’s just extra fiber, not much different from oat bran muffins or the psyllium husk that is in all those products to make you “regular”. (link)

I found harvesting really easy – just grab hold at the bottom of a stem and pull your hand up, cupping the plant matter (and any unsuspecting insects or arachnids) in the palm as you go, then dump into a reasonably sound plastic bag. After drying them in a shallow tin, allowing said creepy crawlers to escape, I decided to try mixing the seeds/chaff in with other flours to make bread. First I gave my digestive system a head start by attacking them with a mortar & pestle:

(Processing left-to-right with spare stalks, grass seeds, misc. etc deposited in the top blue bowl. The small pyramid-shaped rust-red seeds impacted quite heavily on the mortar, but gradually pulverised into a whitish meal. I didn’t get too obssessive about mashing every last one.) Then I threw slightly more than a cupful of the resulting gruel into the bread machine, along with 1 cup ryeflour and 2 cups regular white flour and the usual amounts of sugar, salt, oil, yeast and warm water, plus some sunflower seeds for texture. I had to add more flour to get the right consistency – a lot of air went in with the dock seed cup. Here’s the result, three hours later (I know, I know – I got the slaves to make it for me. I’ll learn how to bake it myself eventually, promise!):

H reliably confirmed that it did have the same kind of flavour and texture as buckwheat (I’d never knowingly tried it before). Initially I was worried that it was going to have the same bitterness as the rest of the plant (the raw seeds have quite a tang to them too), but in the end I liked the taste – sort of mellow, dark & heavy, combining well with the rye and adding a nice chewy/crunchiness to get the molars and jaw muscles working. I don’t know how much nutrition my body took from it (probably more than from the white flour†), but it seemed to ‘sit’ nicely, leaving me feeling full and, yes, coming out quite comfortably at the other end too.

So. Get friendly with these weeds! They’ll be among your first allies when the concrete and tarmac begins to break up (or after you tear it up yourself), and if you can find a home in the ‘waste’ land where they grow and thrive, then there’s nowhere you can’t live!‡


* – Pretty sure I identified it correctly as the broad-leaved variety, but I haven’t seen any toxicity warnings for the seeds of any of the other common varieties, and they can probably be used in the same way.

† – ‘Be Kind to Your Grains…And Your Grains Will Be Kind To You‘:

Even orthodox nutritionists now recognize that white flour is an empty food, supplying calories for energy but none of the bodybuilding materials that abound in the germ and the bran of whole grains.

‡ – Maybe Antarctica.

Wild Food June – pt.1

June 24, 2010

Here’s some stuff I’ve been getting up to (that’s what blogs are for, right?) and which I presume you could be getting up to too:

1) – Stinging Nettles. Further to picking & eating them raw as a wayside snack / test of manhood, I felled this lovely bunch from a shady part of the local park (I guess they have more incentive to grow tall with a lack of light, plus the books say that they make better eating than those getting scorched in the full sun all day):

I snicked them off at the base with a knife, put gardening gloves on after the 3rd or 4th sting from the bristly stems, then flopped the lot of them over my shoulder and walked the 15 minutes home, people staring all the way*. Usually I’d just pick the lighter green tops off for food use, but I wanted to try my hand at making cordage from the strong fibres in the stalk. Here’s the Ray Mears tutorial I worked off (watch from 2:35):

Here are my stalks, stripped of newer, nice-looking leaves (in the bowl on the right) and older, nasty-looking leaves (in the tub on the left, covered in water to use as a plantfeed when well-rotted after a couple of weeks-or-so†). Gloves not really needed from this point:

I flattened them against the paving stones with my thumb before splitting them from the mid-point and peeling away the pith as Mears demonstrates (top-to-bottom, inner pith, partially split stem, fibres):

Then I hung them to dry, and a couple of days later they looked like this:

I tried to twine the dried fibres together as Mears shows, but they weren’t pliable enough to roll along my jeans so I settled on a threeway plait. I was in my usual doing-things-for-the-first-time mindframe of assumed competency and feverish annoyance when things don’t work out right away, so the result was a bit of an untidy rush job:

Still, not bad for a first attempt. A good length from 5 fibres (feeding a new one in as the old one tapers out) and it felt strong enough when I tugged on both ends.

I made a couple of really tasty soups from the leaves. Pamela Michael’s ‘Nettle Borscht’ recipe of butter-fried onion + nettles + vegetable stock, boiled for 10 mins, blended + cream to finish was my favourite. They also went well in bacon fry-ups, veg casseroles and omelettes. Oh, and I saved a couple of handfuls from the outset to dry for tea, but I’m not crazy about the flavour … seems like a bit of a waste of the incredible 25% dry-weight protein content too – I feel really nourished and full of a nice buzzy energy after eating nettles in one form-or-other. Sadly deceased herbalist & wild food guru Frank Cook said that it should be our ‘national food’ here in England‡ and I’m inclined to agree.

2) – Elder. These guys have been going mad with all the sun lately, poking out their lovely, delicious-smelling flower sprays almost everywhere I turn. I suppose that’s the first stage in the relationship: recognition – the brief interval in the year when a plant species takes it turn to do something incredible and un-ignorable – “Hey, look at me! Check out what I’m doing over here! I wanna be your friend! Remember this meeting and maybe come back to say Hi at another point in the year – perhaps I’ll have another special gift to offer you??!?” I finally went on a trip with my mum to visit my favourite Elder buddy on a field margin down on the way towards the river. He was practically groaning under the weight of berries last Autumn (October?) and this is the second year I’ve gathered his flowers – in fact I only just finished the last batch of tea (just dry the flowers, then infuse at will) which he helped provide:


Recently I’ve read about the importance of Elder as a ‘keystone species’ in plant communities. In The Vegetarian Myth Lierre Keith quotes extensively from Stephen Harrod Buhner’s The Lost Language of Plants, in which he ‘talks about archipelagoes of plant communities, groupings of intercommunicating plants around a dominant or keystone species, usually a tree. These archipelagoes form in response to mysterious and unpredictable cues, and often announce the wholesale movement of ecosystems.’ Keith continues:

Once established, the keystone plant then calls the bacteria, mycelia, plants, insects, and other animals necessary to build a healthy and resilient community. The keystone’s chemistries arrange the other species and direct their behaviour. “This capacity of keystone species to ‘teach’ their plant communities how to act was widely recognized in indigenous and folk taxonomies.” Elder trees are called elders for a reason.

Among many indigenous and folk people it is said that the elder tree ‘teaches the plants what to do and how to grow,’ and that without its presence the local plant community will become confused … Other indigenous peoples, recognizing the nature and function of keystone species, have said that ‘the trees are the teachers of the law.’ ” [Keith, pp.88-89; Buhner, p.183]

That was about the most awesome thing I’ve read all year. Elder also has a crazy diversity of medicinal applications, known as ‘the medicine chest of the country people’ (Ettmueller via Grieve), though so far I’ve only used the flower tea, fairly successfully, to sweat out colds and fevers before they get into full swing. I think next I’ll be trying out the leaves, which, according to PFAF’s Ken Fern, work to repel insects and are ‘very effective when rubbed on the skin though they do impart their own unique fragrance’. For edible uses, I made elderflower fritters (which tasted okay with powdered sugar, but didn’t agree with my digestive system – here’s a recent post, including recipe, on Nick Weston’s ‘Hunter-Gathering’ blog) and, after having a whole batch of laboriously-snipped flowers (the green flower-stalks taste bad) go mouldy, I decided to throw the next lot quickly into Elderflower Cordial. Robin was kind enough to link me to another Hunter-Gathering recipe, which I followed pretty closely apart from the orange zest  and citric acid. So this is a load of snipped flowers + three lemons sliced & grated in slightly over 2l of water, brought to the boil for around 10 minutes:

I left the thing to infuse overnight, then strained through a jelly bag (squeezing hard to get all the juice out of flowers & lemons), added several squirts of lemon juice concentrate and 1kg sugar to the resulting cloudy yellow liquid, boiled for another 10 minutes before allowing to cool slightly and pouring into sterilised bottles. Voila:

To be continued…


* – Watching people’s reactions to my climbing trees, walking barefoot, smelling flowers, looking up at birds, and especially foraging for wild plants, I wonder if I underestimate the propaganda value of just seeing somebody engaged in these activities, behaving like it was the normal thing to do. Having rather shy & retiring personality traits (in the flesh, at least) I started out quite furtively with my nettles, trying to avoid other people, taking the smaller paths &c. Illicit activity. When I came to a main road, though, I had to give this up and actually started to enjoy my role as walking advertisement for a sane way of life. All the cars zooming past with quizzical expressions on those driving them, behind wheels, behind glass … why should I be the one to feel embarrassed? They’re the crazy fundamentalist revolutionaries, not me!

† – PFAF say: ‘The leaves are also an excellent addition to the compost heap[12, 18, 20] and they can be soaked for 7 – 21 days in water to make a very nutritious liquid feed for plants[54]. This liquid feed is both insect repellent and a good foliar feed[14, 18, 53].’ (link) My little tub stank out the whole garden after two weeks, when I finally spread half of it on the flower borders and dumped the rest in the compost. Weirdly, we had a couple of wood pigeons who seemed to love drinking the stuff – I had a good laugh when the one with a limp (who keeps coming back even though I’ve sworn that I’ll try to kill and eat him if he does) fell into the tub and got covered in the stinky sludge trying to flap his way out.

‡ – Watch him speak about nettles. Quote (0:27): ‘[T]he rest of the world of people who know nettles consider it an amazing healing herb, and it’s only here and other places in Europe that it’s considered a noxious weed. And it’s really important: any noxious weed you have around you is rare somewhere, and that’s really important to remember – and that, instead of thinking of it as a noxious weed, think of it as an incredibly abundant friend who’s trying to remind you of something.’

Ian’s Haircare

June 1, 2010

Step 1: Pick a handful of Rosemary.

Step 2 (optional): Pick a couple of stems of Sage and a few extra leaves.

Step 3: Bash fresh herbs with the business end of a rolling pin (because it’s fun but also because people say it helps to liberate the various essences) and place in a pan of cold water corresponding to the size of bottle you’d like to fill, plus a little extra to make up for evaporation loss.

Step 4: Bring to boil, cover to stop the volatile (Latin: volare “to fly”) oils escaping, simmer for 1/4 of an hour then take off heat and allow to cool. Strain & bottle.

There, wasn’t that simple?

I’ve had satisfactory results over the last 3-4 months just washing my hair with warm water, pouring a capful of this stuff on, massaging it all in and toweling dry without re-rinsing. I like the smell, it leaves my (nearing neck-length) hair feeling grease-free & healthy, plus I know what went into it and didn’t give my money to any nasty pharmaceutical company*.

I got the recipe from Pamela Michael’s Edible Wild Plants & Herbs. The first time I just used Rosemary, but she repeats the instructions in the entry for Sage, so I’m experimenting with a mixture of the two†. Michael notes that  ‘All sorts of commercial preparations for the hair are made with rosemary, and its good effects are well known […] A little rubbed into the scalp daily gives the hair a nice sheen and wholesome fragrance’. She says that ‘it will not keep for more than a week or ten days once opened’ but my last bottle lasted about 2 months, just getting a little darker in colour and stronger-smelling. Perhaps the plant’s strong antiseptic properties help with this. Anyway, they say fermented plant-feed gets more effective with age…

In case you were worrying that this concoction would only suit an aspiring Cro-Magnon such as myself, here’s a decent page of Rosemary info for you, written by a woman who has had ‘many long haired beauties [recommend] rosemary herbal hair teas, oil and rinses’ over the years ‘to stimulate my follicles and grow my hair longer and stronger’. More relevant bits:

Rosemary For Hair

This magnificent herb is widely respected for its value as a hair and beauty aide. Rosemary can also be used in the bath, on the face and as a body or scalp massage.

Believed to stimulate hair follicles and hair growth, rosemary is generally believed to slow down or even permanently hold off premature hair loss and gray hair.

Rosemary oils and concoctions will soothe and condition dry, flaky scalps.  When applied in a concentrated form to the roots and scalp, rosemary is helpful in clearing many cases of dandruff.  Rosemary also mixes well with tea tree and basil for stubborn scalp problems.

Rosemary Hair Oils

Rosemary is known to help darken gray hair over time (although not obvious for a long time) and it is considered to be a stimulant for the roots and the scalp. Many people trying to help stimulate their hair to grow longer or healthier swear by various rosemary infused recipes.

If you have long hair with some hints of gray, you may want to avoid using commercial dyes or colors to protect the health of your hair.  Over an extended period of time rosemary rinses and oils are rumored to gently and softly darken gray hair. Rosemary will also eliminate dryness and act as an excellent conditioner.

Besides being rumored to help grow hair faster & prevent pre-mature baldness (no scientific evidence to that at this point) it is also good for knocking out dandruff.

If you have blonde or light colored hair you may NOT want to try this recipe as it may darken your hair.

Apparently a rinse made with Chamomile flowers is good for blondes, but they haven’t come out yet (the flowers, not the blondes). Other good ones include Stinging Nettle, Yarrow and Burdock. While you’re at it you can use the same plants to make yourself a nice cup of tea!


* – I recommend Pat Thomas’ snappily-titled Cleaning Yourself To Death for a forensic investigation of all the toxic (including carcinogenic) ingredients and industrial waste-products that corporations have dumped on us in the form of cosmetics and cleaning products. She explains how unnecessary most of these are (of course – that’s why they have to spend so much money on advertising) and provides alternative options including simple recipes you can make in your own kitchen.

† – Try it yourself, but I think I’ll just be sticking to Rosemary in the future. After a week of daily use my hair feels maybe a bit cleaner and ‘fluffier’, but it’s also curling all over the place and getting rather unmanageable. Well, it’s probably time to cut it too…

Devon Trip & Beechleaf Gin

May 21, 2010

Last Leg

Back from a short trip to/around Devon. Highlights included:

1) – Hitching down. A few long waits near the start and more dickheads & misanthropes than on previous occasions (one guy pulled over, asked if I was homeless, asked if I needed work, offered to pay me £10/day to ‘push around a wheelbarrow’, and drove off when I declined). Otherwise some really nice, friendly people: old and young; ex-hitchers and first-timers; male and female; hatchbacks, 4x4s, rundown trucks and even a beamer (! – almost never happens); retired ex-military, off-duty policeman, builder, electrical engineer, council worker, hippie type, housewife; Surrey to Devon in around nine hours

2) – Meeting Robin Harford and going on one of his ‘Wild Food Foraging Courses‘ – super-informative, mixing history, politics, recipes, personal stories, nutritional info and the all-important hands-on taste tests. I met hemlock for the first time (taller than I’d imagined, not as bad-smelling as the books had me believing, kindof a thrill knowing here was a plant that could kill me – R had a charming story about an American family who got paralysed for several days in the woods from eating a not-quite-lethal dose: the conscious waiting to see if you’ll die or pull out of it and whether some animal is going to come and “eat my face” in the meantime…), picked & ate my first raw stinging nettle (super-tasty & nutritious: treat it gently but firmly, pick a young, light-green top off at the stem, roll it all up into a ball inside one of the leaves and squash all the sting out of it between thumbs and forefingers, pop in mouth – prepare to get stung while practicing!) and saw the famed coast-hugging colonies of Alexanders, left by the Romans back in the day. Felt rather overstuffed at the end of two hours, but plenty of (wild) food for (wild) thought to take away with me and work on back home.

It was nice to meet somebody who has read a lot of the same books as me & synchs up to my way of seeing. Good talks about Alice Miller, Derrick Jensen and others… R and his partner had even tried to raise their daughter on continuum concept principles (failing largely because of a lack of community support), and there was a nice moment when he asked if I’d read Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth, and I replied that yes, I had a copy in my bag right there & then! So thanks to Robin and also to Chris who very kindly let me camp out on his land for a couple of nights.

Sleeping arrangements

Morning view

3) – Driving around, and later wildcamping with H on Dartmoor.

4) – Coastwalking from Beer to Lyme Regis, with an especially nice stretch along the ‘Undercliff‘ which has reverted to woodland over a couple of centuries after a big landslip in 1839 eventually rendered the land unsuitable for other, more ‘productive’ uses:

One of the most spectacular landslips occurred on 24 December 1839, 3 miles (4.8 km) west along the coast in Devon belonging to Bindon Manor and known as “The Dowlands Landslip”. About 45 acres (18 ha) of fields growing wheat and turnips were dislodged when a great chasm was formed more than 300 feet (91 m) across, 160 feet (49 m) deep and 0.75 miles (1.21 km) long. The crops remained intact on the top of what became known as “Goat Island” among the newly formed gullies. On 3 February 1840, five weeks later, there was a second landslip nearby but much smaller than the former. This strange phenomenon attracted many visitors, and the canny farmers charged sixpence for entrance and held a grand reaping party when the wheat ripened. (link)

The whole area was positively buzzing with life, providing a tantalising glimpse of what this country could look like in the (hopefully) none-too distant future.


(The way I saw it there, and the way I’m seeing it more often everywhere I go: we humans are going to have to prove that we’re worth more than our weight in manure in helping the land get where it wants to go – if we want any chance of playing a part in that future, that is.)

5) – Meeting up and staying with C & M, old neighbours of ours who moved to a rural village near Honiton about ten years ago. Great to catch up and exchange shower & bed for tarp & sleeping bag for a couple of nights. More thanks!

6) – A day and a night in the New Forest, ‘wild’ ponies galloping through the campsite. Perhaps it was the wrong area, but the whole place felt ‘wild’ in a pretty sterile, managed, aesthetic-appeal-y kind of way. Great meals though, mixing in wild greens into ‘omni-mush’ mixes of, variously:  rice, pasta, quinoa, couscous, dried veg, chicken curry, chili con carne … etc. Plus hearty helpings of hot porridge in the mornings, all over my little gas stove.

Anyway, I came back more-or-less in time to take the young beech leaves out of the gin they’d been soaking in for a little over a fortnight:


(Actually I left them in a cupboard, but outside looks more impressive. This (above) was the before shot; after the leaves had blanched a little and were going brown near the surface.) I got the idea from Food For Free where Richard Mabey has a recipe for ‘Beech Leaf Noyau’. After the soak, squeeze the lime-green gin infusion out of the leaves and simply mix with a cooled syrup (I followed Pamela Michael’s instructions in Edible Wild Plants And Herbs, where she halves Mabey’s amount of sugar to 225g, boiled for a few minutes in 125ml water – this for 75cl of gin) and add a few healthy glugs of white rum (Mabey suggests brandy but Michael opts for rum because she’s ‘afraid to alter the ethereal colour’). Bottle & serve. It goes down a treat – a smooth spring flavour and deceptively strong.



Possibly I’ve waited too long to post this and you won’t be able to try it until next year (I don’t know how it might turn out now that the leaves have toughened and darkened) – sorry! I’ll make up for it by telling you in advance that you can eat the nuts too, when they start to drop in the Autumn. I had good times in September/October laying my jacket under low-hanging branches, shaking out the pointy brown kernels and continuing my walk with a pocketful of them, which often wouldn’t last the journey home. You just need good thumbnails to open them and snack away! Handy tip: the ones that flatten when you pinch them are empty. Look, they’re starting to form already:

Baby beechnuts

So yes, the Beech tree. I think it’s my current favourite. Check out this beauty soaking up all the sunshine at the top of my road:

Beech beauty


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